For many, the legacy of Pee-Wee Herman lies in a seedy mug shot and a equally grimy Sarasota, FL porn shop. It was is such an unlikely locale that character originator Paul Reubens was arrested and charged with acts unbecoming a kid show host. Though he had never specifically aimed his material at children, his Pee-Wee's Playhouse had become a Saturday morning staple for several years, guaranteeing him the attention of the pre-adolescent set...and parents who went ballistic upon the news. For decades now, Reubens has planned his comeback. He made a memorable early appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards (asking the classic self-deprecating line "Heard any good jokes lately?") and discussed plans for movies, specials and other reentries into the limelight. The project that finally came to pass was a massive hit Broadway performance that melded elements of his weekly television cavalcade with the signature showcase from 1981 that made him a near household name in the first place. Now, The Pee-Wee Herman Show on Broadway is available on Blu-ray, and for those who know the man and his magic, the secret word is "masterpiece."
It's another sunny, funny day at Pee-Wee's (Reubens) puppet-filled playhouse. Mingling among its various inanimate residents, including Chairry, a big blue chair, the talking Flowers, the equally erudite Mr. Window, Globey and his internal mapping travelogue, time manager Clockey, the sock-headed Mr. Knucklehead, personal robot pal Conky 3000, and Magic Screen, he seems relatively happy. Then the most beautiful woman in all of Puppetland, Ms. Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart) shows up, sad. She wants Cowboy Curtis (Phil LaMarr) to be her boyfriend, but she thinks she doesn't have a chance. So Pee-Wee calls on his genie pal Jambi (John Paragon) to grant him a wish. While our hero has always wanted to fly, he will gladly give up his dream so that Ms. Yvonne can find happiness. In between, Pee-Wee hires a workman (Jesse Garcia) to wire the playhouse for the World Wide Web, while lesson on cooking French fries and proper manners and etiquette are offered.
When it first hit the infant airwaves of pay television back in 1981, no one had ever seen anything quite like The Pee-Wee Herman Show. The offshoot of the West Coast improvisation group The Groudlings, it was a revisionist retro throwback, a homage to the frightening '50s kid vid archetypes that explored the implied bad touch treatise within a world wild with toys, joys, and wicked little boys. Again, Pee-Wee only became an underage icon much later on. The character always had an edge, one clearly visible in the movies made and the stage work then...and now. Indeed, the best thing about The Pee-Wee Herman Show on Broadway is that it finds a fascinating way to balance the needs of everyone interested in Reubens and his signature style - both kind and cruel. Taking much of the original piece (gone are Hammy, Susan, Hermit Hattie, and, sadly, Captain Carl) and adding a few bits here, there is a lot that if familiar, and an equal amount that is fresh and new. Cowboy Curtis is here, along with many of the playhouse pals. We also get a new character, tech specialist Sergio (who is wiring the playhouse for the Internet), as well as a firefighter named Phineas and a guy in a bear costume.
As usual, it's all about Herman and his hands-on approach to satire. The subject, however, has changed. Instead of channeling Pinky Lee or Andy Devine, our host is taken on...his own image. Indeed, The Pee-Wee Herman Show on Broadway is all about taking what you remember about the 30 years old icon and tweaking it just a bit. There's a great moment dealing with abstinence rings, as well as a couple of well placed jokes about Reuben's scandalous past. The Ms. Yvonne storyline, borrowed from the original, feels new thanks to the introduction of Cowboy Curtis as her current intended, and the weird last act moment with the costumed bear shows that the character is not beyond really baffling us, once in a while. Those expecting a replay of his TV work will probably be a bit disappointed. This is theater and Reubens et.al play directly to the audience. They let laughs linger and push even the most minor joke to sometimes naughty ends. All the while, the seemingly ageless actor relies on his mythic bag of tricks to take us back to the moment when comedy forever changed, and Pee-Wee Herman was the reason why.
While it doesn't have the flawless electric kick of the original (Reubens is a known quantity now and can bask a bit) and tends to treat its viewers like one big clued in collective (Pee-Wee novices need to watch out). Still, for the sheer joy of watching a truly gifted performer back where he belongs - in front of an audience - The Pee-Wee Herman Show on Broadway is pure bliss. It's like the moment when you first remember seeing Monty Python's Flying Circus, or witnessing the wonders that are/were SCTV. It's a milestone in mirth that many don't acknowledge but that few could be funny without. Indeed, Pee-Wee Herman set the tone for the entire '80s, just as Steve Martin and Cheech and Chong did for the '70s. He was the nostalgic numbskull, recognizable and a bit rude, affected but also capable of great genuine wonder. Watching the update with the original in mind is like seeing the second coming of a comedy god. Paul Reubens may have been in exile for a while, but among the rabid fanbase, all is forgiven. It's time to see a Pee-Wee resurgence, and this delightful extravaganza goes a long way into placing the character back at the top of the pop culture heap where he belongs. Frankly, he should have never left.
As you can imagine from a production design that often looks like a Technicolor yawn as produced by clowns covered in rainbow pixie sticks, the 1.78:1, 1080i transfer of The Pee-Wee Herman Show on Broadway looks sensational. There's a real live feel to the image, and the details are plentiful, from the crow's feet peeking through Ms. Yvonne's make-up to the sweat stains on the actor's clothes. It's a great looking presentation, expertly directed and nicely filmed. Granted, it's still a play in front of a packed house, but it has an equally intimate feel as well.
What? Sorry...could you repeat that? The only audio option is an uncompressed PCM Stereo mix? That's it? No 5.1 remaster? No lossless Master Audio? You're kidding, right? Oh sure, the dialogue is easy to hear and the musical accompaniment captured with fullness and range, but this is BLU-RAY, dammit, not some standard VHS release. Purists will demand a better tech spec than this. Again, there is nothing wrong with the sonic reproduction here. A format upgrade, however, demands said improvement in all areas, including the aural aspects of the release.
There is only one piece of added content here, but it's a doozy, especially for long time fans of Reubens and his manic manchild creation. The actor is on hand, along with other members of the Broadway show, for a commentary track that really gets into the history and various permutations of the characters and show. It's a hoot, even if there are moments where nobody says a word and merely watched the merriment before them.
At the pinnacle of his success, Paul Reubens' Pee-Wee Herman was everywhere - on lunch boxes and in toy stores, on talk shows and at special live events. He was the epitome of the culture's incurable need to look back buffered by a tongue in cheek take on such wistfulness. No matter what happened then, or what will happen now (make the planned Reubens/Apatow collaboration a done deal ASAP!) there will always be a place for this amazing man in the legacy of humor. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, this is a great reminder of what Reubens does/did best, as well as an indication of how much creative gas there is left in the actor's tank. One look at this love letter to his alter ego argues that we haven't seen the last of Pee-Wee Herman...and we can all thank the Gods for that.
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